Site + Story + Object: A Theory of Engagement

ARTS, Features, Visual Arts
img_site1An exploration of harmonious museum spaces, from Vienna’s Kunst Haus Wien to Wellington’s Carter Observatory.

It seems the real world is going virtual. Museums, competing with more modern entertainment options and notoriously short visitor attention spans, frequently turn to the novelty of interactive technology. Retailers turn increasingly to digital solutions too, as they face pressure to improve their in-store “experience” due to competition with online shopping. Universities, in a climate of cost-cutting, competition, and commercialisation, develop digital learning strategies to deal with large enrolment numbers and decreasing budgets for tutors and contact time. Perhaps, as Te Papa chief executive Michael Houlihan has suggested to me, digital solutions to engagement are pedagogically sound, because “the way in which people learn has changed through technology”; the IT revolution has changed how people’s brains wire right from childhood.

Not completely convinced by this argument, I spent two years preoccupied with the question of the nature of engagement and what might constitute it. We all know how easy and fruitless it can be to while away time in front of screens following whims to no meaningful or memorable end: however much digital technology facilitates accessibility and interactivity, it is certainly no panacea to the problem of (dis)engagement. So although digital technology appears increasingly central to the question of engagement, I brushed it aside for my own inquiry: I wanted to explore the human experience, independent of technological intermediaries.

For lack of a more accessible case study subject, I used myself. Since exhibitions seem to have a pronounced capacity to afflict me with either intrigue or fatigue in dizzying measures, I observed my response to these in particular. Yet in my quest to discover what holds me in a space, I sought patterns and correlations between buzz and boredom felt in shops, lecture halls, classrooms, marae, cafes, homes and landscapes as well as museums, whether high, low or no budget, indoor or outdoor, didactic or interactive, throughout Europe and Aotearoa.


KunstHaus, Vienna. Source: © KUNST HAUS WIEN / W. Simlinger.

A long sought after theory of engagement came to fruition at Hundertwasser’s KunstHaus in Vienna. Real engagement, I decided there, occurs where there is a harmony between a site, and the stories and objects within. The KunstHaus architecture itself is Hundertwasser’s: covered in Gaudiesque mosaic, not a right angle or straight line in sight, with undulating plastered walls and floors. The space is light, the displays are Hundertwasser’s paintings, designs, and creations, telling the story of his life and concerns in art, architecture, and living. A Tinguely exhibition coincided with my visit, and each display, wall texts, and architectural environment enhanced the experience of the other, making the KunstHaus a rich, immersive experience in which it was natural to learn and absorb. Only, perhaps the KunstHaus lent itself uniquely to the conclusion I drew there: it does explore the lifeworld of an artist who happens also to have been the architect of the building.


Sculpture garden, Sweden. Source: Renee Gerlich.

Yet I cast my mind back, to a hot spring afternoon I spent walking with my mother along a remote village road near Sweden’s river Kinda. We were making the 10km journey back to our friends’ converted chapel from the nearest township with some bread, milk, and pear juice. We were a little lost when we stumbled upon a crooked sign announcing a ‘MUSEUM ?’. Intrigued, we followed the sign along a pathway, dropping a coin into a top hat held out politely by a smiling fibreglass man in a bowler hat and painted suit. I didn’t dare withhold my donation from him, lest a wicked hag was watching from inside the cabin behind. Beyond him was an abandoned sculpture garden dotted with cherry trees blossoming pink popcorn; the air smelled deliciously of pine. It was an enchanted place to wander feeling like Gretel and Hansel at the house of cake and sweets.


Kunsthaus Tacheles, Berlin. Source: Roi Boshi via

Then there was east Berlin’s Kunsthaus Tacheles. Originally built in 1908 as a department store on Oranienburgerstresse, Tacheles was a Nazi prison for a short while before it was partially demolished and taken over by artists after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Before it was demolished in 2012, the place had been a health and safety nightmare overrun with graffiti and artist-residents renting for a token euro per year, selling work like hotcakes. In one of its ‘bars’ you could sit on the disintegrating couches perched at the edge of the floor, unbarricaded from the four storey drop to the concrete courtyard. The place was filthy, energised, anarchic, creative: a bona fide boho tourist Mecca.


Teylers Museum, Haarlem. Source:

In contrast, the Netherlands’ oldest museum, Haarlem’s Teylers Museum, and Wanganui’s Sarjeant Gallery, both seem to sensitively deproblematise their respective outmoded Enlightenment and Christian aesthetics. The Teylers museum was established in 1784 and uses period exhibition techniques, long vitrines with taxonomic specimen displays. Viewing art is a religious experience in the Sarjeant Gallery, perched poignantly on its hilltop in the town centre. Its off-white spaces in neoclassical Greek cross design with domed skylight lend a humbly sacred air to the space. In both of these museums, the modes of display befit the sites as well as the objects displayed, and the harmony between these makes for a rich, unique, immersive, and intriguing experience.


Museumpark Orientalis, Nijmijgen. Source:

Museumpark Orientalis is a vast ‘Middle Eastern’ open-air museum in Nijmijgen, the Netherlands. It has an ethos of religious tolerance, and visitors can easily walk around for a whole day, stopping off at a Bedouin camp or Roman street to speak with actors in costume discussing their Islamic, Christian, or Jewish faiths. I recall chatting with two burka-clad volunteers outside the mosque about faith, while nursing a steaming glass mug of peppermint tea: how words, objects, and environments activate the life in each other.


Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. Source: via

I have a fond memory too, of my 2006 visit to Wellington’s Carter Observatory, listening to a veteran astronomer tell stories of the constellations while leaning back in my seat to watch the projection of the night sky on the domed ceiling. At a restorer’s talk at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, I swooned in my seat, torn deliciously between rapt attention and a bursting desire to escape the auditorium to go and gaze at the paintings. The captivating talk involved passionate digressions and pronouncements of how paintings are living organisms with which people can fall in love: particularly, for reasons clearly outlined, the Van Goghs all around us. The astromer and the restorer’s stories had an effect on my surrounds like transubstantiation. At Vienna’s Leopold Museum too, headphones are stationed at seats playing period music to listen to while looking at the paintings.

Finally I recall the launch of Capo Cucina, a tiny Italian restaurant in the Hague, at which Sicilian chef Roman Auteri explained why he had decided to scale down his large and prosperous business to but one (long) dining table, available only by appointment, and an open kitchen behind the counter. In his previous restaurant with its closed-off kitchen, he had missed sharing the whole experience of the meal, the cooking and eating and talking, with his guests. As he spoke I imagined the space with steaming pots in the kitchen, laughter and wild gesticulation, wine and pasta on the table. Wine and spice racks lined the walls, herbs sat on the counter bordering the kitchen strung with utensils, pans, and ladles. As he spoke, I listened heartily, lost in the words of this man whose passion for sharing food and laughter seemed to echo all throughout the room, as he explained his dreams for the space in which we were enveloped, and in which he was to spend so much of his precious time.

Renee Gerlich is a freelance writer based in Wellington. With the aid of a Creative New Zealand grant, she is currently researching Gordon Tovey and mid twentieth century education reform in Aotearoa.

MAIN IMAGE: KunstHaus exterior, Vienna. Source: © KUNST HAUS WIEN / W. Simlinger.